By Russell Contreras, Associated Press
(AP) — A Democrat-backed bill to legalize recreational marijuana businesses in all towns and counties across New Mexico passed its first test late Tuesday amid heighten interested from businesses and health care advocates.
The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 4-3 along party lines to move along the measure that would subsidize medical marijuana and automatically expunge many past pot convictions. The committee had to convene on the Senate floor to accommodate crowds around a proposal that would subsidize medical marijuana for low-income patients and expunge many past pot convictions.
An initial draft of the bill from Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque would also override local governments that don’t welcome the industry. The condition is an attempt to stamp out black markets.
“This is the future,” Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers. “New Mexico doesn’t have time to waste precious years.”
But the future of the bill remain uncertain as it moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a moderate Democrat from Las Cruces, has said he had concerns about legalizing recreational marijuana in the state.
Under the proposal, every recreational dispensary would be required to also offer medical marijuana to patients who qualify under a long list of conditions such as cancer, post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. New Mexico founded its medical cannabis program in 2007.
The initiative was condemned as a threat to workplace and roadway safety by a coalition that includes the local Roman Catholic Church, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Smart Approaches to Marijuana — a nonpartisan group opposed to marijuana legalization.
“With New Mexico routinely ranked near the bottom of the country in terms of education, overall economy, opportunity, drug use, and crime, this is the worst possible option at the worst possible time,” said a statement from Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Lincoln County Sheriff Robert Shepperd said the state’s law enforcement leaders also have concerns over how deputies will spot motorists suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana.
“In order to take a swab of the mouth, we need to get a warrant,” Shepperd said. “How do we do that? There’s just a lot of questions. I think we need to slow down and not rush this.”
Terri Cole, president and CEO at Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said businesses also were worried about the lack of technology to test employees for marijuana use especially because of federal contract requirements.
“Somebody’s worker’s comp is going to go through the roof,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle said. “Did this cause you to have an accident on the job?”
Authors of the legislation say it responds to concerns about affordability and access to medical marijuana in states including Oregon that have authorized recreational marijuana. No state yet mandates medical cannabis sales at all marijuana shops, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
A bipartisan legalization bill last year that involved state-run cannabis stores won House approval by a two-vote margin before stalling in the Senate, where several moderate Democrats have openly opposed legalization.
Deliberations begin this year in the Senate, where a handful of Republicans have backed past legalization efforts and some Democrats are firmly against it.
This year’s initiative hews closely to recommendations of a legalization policy task force assembled by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and led by Albuquerque city councilor Pat Davis.
The bill would reserve tax revenue from marijuana sales for law enforcement agencies and public education efforts to prevent intoxicated driving.
It breaks with task force recommendations by allowing small quantities of home grown marijuana.
AP Photo Julio Cortez